Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Growing Old, Gracefully, Together

Walk to the top of the hill.
In the blogosphere, it's the quirky, cute, bipolar suicidal woman who has millions of followers. For us, posts of a dog generate the most likes. Today is the dawn of a new year. Let's talk about life - and life's last chapter.

This is not just a story about a dog. It's a story about all of us. Why do healthy people get sick? What health care options are available and how do you pay for expensive treatment? How do we care for the elderly? What are the responsibilities of children to care for their parents? How do we spend our last days? And what afterlife awaits us?

There's a story in the Bible of the final chapter of the great King David when a beautiful virgin was brought to his chamber and he knew her not. When the rabbit froze at the sight of the King of the Vineyard then hopped away without a chase from the Aussie I remembered old King David. Is not chasing a rabbit a sign of old age? Or perhaps a wise old dog who knows there's no use chasing a rabbit he can't catch.

A few years ago as I turned a certain age beyond life's midpoint and the dog turned eight I reflected on how we were growing old together, gracefully. Daily walks up and down the steep hill stiffened our joints. We both lost a step. Then we retired from running marathons. On the dog days of summer we both needed a rest in the shade.

A few years passed and then he was the age of my father. To help the arthritis, we tried laser therapy and then a dog chiropractor.

"Could you adjust my spine too?" I asked the therapist.
"You'll have to lie down where the dog was - it's dirty," he said.
"It doesn't matter. I sleep with him anyhow."

Growing old together. Gracefully. At first.

I bought diapers at "Babies R Us" for Bluey because he was having accidents at night, then during the day. They didn't fit. Catching samples of pee and trips to the vet. A bladder infection or incontinence? Prescriptions for a cranberry based herbal medicine worked for a while then didn't. Next, an incontinence supplement. Waking up every two hours at night to take himoutside became tiring. And then he started throwing up. At first we thought it was from eating the seeds from a Queen Palm tree. Then we thought it was a change in the food as we had switched from home made beef and vegetables to home made chicken-based meals.

The dog was a walking time bomb. At any moment he might throw up or pee or poop anywhere in the house. One learns humility from cleaning it up. We love him so it was just a task you do, cheerfully, like changing the diaper of the Princess when she was a baby. It was time for another trip to the vet. Why is this dog sick to his stomach so often?

Is it the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory for his arthritis?  Blood tests, clear. X-ray, clear. Ultra-sound, not clear but inconclusive. Biopsy, no cancer found. But there's something in his stomach. We're not 100% sure what it is.

It's not easy running a veterinarian hospital. There is no Obamacare for pets. Everyday, animals in dying need arrive requiring urgent care. Vets need to earn a living too. Their education is among the most costly of any profession. Yet how many people can afford to spend $5,000 for an operation to save their dear pet's life? The vets have it in their power to save the animal but how is their practice going to survive providing free healthcare to canine patients? The reviews on Yelp of the clinic where we went are full of such stories: the choice between saving a loved companion or personal bankruptcy.

How we treat our animals tells us a lot about ourselves.  As individuals. As a society.

"I love Australian Shepherds," said the Vet's assistant.
I tell Bluey, "I bet she says that to all of the boys." She starts asking detailed questions about his diarrhea.  She's knowledgeable. She's smart. She speaks with authority. And I'm wondering if a guy has ever asked a girl out on a first date to inspect his dog's poop?

After more tests, the doctor comes back with his findings. There's an 80% chance of cancer. To know for sure he needs to operate.

What are the benefits of the operation? We may extend his life three to nine months. Is it worth extending the life of a dog suffering from arthritis? And what are the odds that he will be weakened even more from surgery and suffer during recuperation? This is an easy decision. Let his sickness take its course and we'll manage his symptoms and pain until it's time.

Our friend Richie says you'll know it's time when he no longer wants to eat and doesn't want to engage. He'll go off to a corner and be by himself. That will be his sign to you.

The Queen said he doesn't have cancer. I wonder if the Rimadyl might have burned a hole in his stomach? I ask the doctor to treat him as if he had an ulcer.

We begin a routine of administering sucralfate to sooth the stomach then two hours later omeprazole to control his stomach acid - he seems to be continuously foaming at the mouth. In the afternoon we give him Cerenia to control his vomiting and it works and we try taking him off it a couple of days and he starts throwing up again so it's back on the meds.

Two 81-year old puppies.
In November, my parents arrive for a visit. Bluey loves his "grandparents" and he's so excited to see them. For the three days they are here he doesn't stop talking. He's putting on a brave show. Dad gets down on all fours and it's such a treat to see two 81-year old puppies rollicking around on the floor.

At first it's easy to insert the pills into a piece of avocado or chicken. But over time, he not only stops eating avocado. He stops eating everything.

Coyote Karen came over to see Bluey. She recalls the time when her parents reached a point when it was too painful to swallow food. Both her mom and dad succumbed to cancer.

Bluey looses weight. He grows weaker. And I remember Richie's words. When he stops eating, he's telling you it's time.

I find myself picking him up into my arms and carrying him down the steep driveway so he can pee in a favorite spot.  I had practice taking care of dad in the heart ward of the hospital after his valve replacement and bypass. We say Blue-Merle red wine cured him. But Bluey doesn't want to sip wine anymore.  He hasn't eaten in 24 hours. I get down on all fours and start ooooing and chewing the aromatic filet mignon from a dish on the ground as if enticing a baby. Yummy yum yum. He joins me and starts nibbling, eating like a very old man - with bits of food strewn all over his face and the floor when he's finished.

Twenty-four hours later and he hasn't eaten since, this time the filet has no appeal. We open a can of dog food - this is the dog who has never eaten food from a can - he eats half the can.  Small miracle. Relief. Another day's lease on life.

The Princess has come home for the holidays and after a couple of days of this routine says, "This is the worst Christmas ever!"

Settling down for a long winter's nap.
Sweet dreams.
"Isn't it nice we can spend this time together as a family? Let's go for a walk." All four of us head up the hill - I pick up Bluey and I realize I'm carrying my cross to the top of the hill. It's a dress rehearsal for his funeral and there's a tear in my eye and we reach the top with a view to the Pacific, macadamia trees and vineyard below -- his vineyard, named after him.

The sun is setting two days before Christmas and while I sit with the family in the last warm rays Bluey heads for shade. He always sought shade. We call him over. The Queen starts singing a song horribly off key "Beautiful boy, beautiful boy, mama loves you, beautiful boy." We take a selfie.

"Dad, can we bury him here?" asks the Princess. And I suppose we will spend Christmas day digging his grave. Three feet down through this solid dirt is going to be a lot of work and I'm thinking it would be nice if she can help. Family activity. Burying your dog.

We walk down to the house and he doesn't eat. No filet mignon. No canned dog food. The Queen has an inspiration. She drives to the market to buy Gerber baby food. He eats the baby turkey dog, but doesn't touch the other jars. He takes some Jarlsberg cheese. We wrap some bread around the cheese and he nibbles more. He will be with us another day.

The next day, he won't eat the Gerber. No filet. No dog food. No milk. We cook a Hebrew National kosher hot dog and he eats it this day. But not the next.

Let's cook him a lamb chop. That works. He's with us another day.

Let's cook lamb stew. That works.  He's with us another day.

Each day, he's a little thinner. The drool drips out of his mouth. He throws up some mornings, but I don't tell the others. One morning as he squats to do #2 blood oozes out. I wipe his butt and carry on. Thank goodness the incontinence has stopped. We can all sleep through the nights.

The princess is a good sport and she perseveres with efforts to entice him to eat. Finally, she uses an injector to suck up milk and soup and squirts it by hand into his mouth.

If we can show such compassion for a dog, what would the world be like if we shared as much love with our fellow humans? Will my daughter be there to wipe the spittle from my mouth, to feed me by hand, to wipe my butt during my last days?

Good wine is made in the vineyard and great wine is made by blending and a year ago at this time the 2012 wines were winners, so I thought, but a year later they are coming up short. With the Blue-Merle at my side, perhaps for the last time, we work to create artisan wines worthy of his name. But instead of staying with me as I taste and blend 13 barrels of wine, he sits outside. At least there's some good news, the 2013 wines are terrific. Bluey will go out a winner.

I found a mouse dead in a trap and usually I would release it from the trap's grip onto a shovel and dispose of it in the canyon adjacent to the vineyard but I was feeling a little tired from all of this and I just kept the mouse in the trap and buried it not far from the house. No need to worry about the weakened dog digging it up. The next day I walked to the area and saw the exhumed trap on the path without a mouse and Bluey licking his lips. No wonder the dog's stomach was upset.

Mr. Barry from Australia who named him told us "he will change your life." He was so right.

This story can have only one end. Even Lazarus raised from the grave must die one day. Bluey lies on his bed on the floor, a bag of bones adorned with a magnificent main and natural fur coat. Remembering how a thin Steve Jobs felt suffering from cancer - always cold - I cover him with a velvet blue blanket, stroke his fur, rub him behind his ears, pick the sand from the corner of his eyes. With lump in throat I lay my hands upon him as he sleeps, summon the Holy Spirit and pray aloud, "Lord, we are so grateful for all the joy Bluey has brought to our lives. Thank you Lord for looking after him during his final days and thank you for keeping him from pain. Please grant us the wisdom to care for him properly while he's with us, and in the fullness of time, may we all be reunited in your heavenly kingdom. Amen."

I whisper in his ear, "Good boy. Good boy. You can leave us if you want to" stroking his thick fur, so peacefully asleep. I quietly leave the room. A minute later I hear slow steps as he follows me, always tracking his sheep. It's not time yet.  One day at a time.

Today is the start of a new year. It's a wonderful day and we're together watching the sunrise. I pull the lamb shank out of the boiling pot of water, cool it, and offer him a morsel of tender meat, then a piece for myself. I hand him the bone. He gnaws.

Editor's note: For the rest of the story, click here. "It's a Dog's Life."